The Discontent of Freud, Part I
Sigmund Freud is among the thinker who defined the age we live in. Alongside Marx, Niezsche and Darwin, Freud established a new set of ideas by which we understand human nature and the nature of society. The trio of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are what I call the great contemnors of civilization. They unleashed the hatred, suspicion and rage against the strictures of the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. Freud’s part in this drama is my present focus.
Against all previous ages, which had bounded the destroying force of human sexuality, Freud began the destruction of all restraints. As is well-known, Freud saw a great part of human psychology in terms of sexuality. Sexuality one of the deepest elements of what it means to be human. It is capable of rending asunder the bonds of marriage, law and civil institution. The Greeks knew this as well as any, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote, “Reckless Eros, great curse, greatly loathed by men, from you com deadly strifes and grieving and troubles, and countless other pains on tope of these swirl up,” while Hesiod called it “the limb loosener,’ who could conquer the thoughts of men and of gods. The greatest of Greek epics, the Iliad of Homer, may be traced to the force of concupiscience which acknowledges no boundary to its desires. Freud managed to make sexuality something which could be commonly spoken of. Today sex can be discussed in public without a glimmer of shame. The effect of Freudian teaching was to make titillating talk acceptable to a degree never before seen, as well as introducing an entire vocabulary which we often make use of today. Though my intent is to critique Freud, I must speak a word in his defense. Nowhere did he advocate the complete overthrow of society’s sexual norms or the end of traditional Christian monogamy. Neither did he claim to have he key to the creation of an earthly utopia.
Freud was a master psychologist and is, along with men like William James, among the founders of present psychological studies. Like most men of genius Freud could not resist trying to apply his theories to every sort of matter, even ones on which he could claim no particular expertise. Among these were the psychology of artists, he authored studies on Dostoevsky and Da Vinci, as well as on religion and civilization. These latter, are what I wish to examine. Though his book on religion preceded his work of civilization, I will treat them in the opposite fashion, since religion is an aspect of a civilization rather than the other way around.
For Freud, human life is an unending struggle, in his Civilization and Its Discontents, he writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliate measures.”1 We seek the ‘pleasure principle,’ which Freud explained in this way, “any given process originates in an unpleasant state of tension and thereupon determines for itself such a path that is ultimate issue coincides with the relaxation of this tension, i.e. with avoidance of ‘pain’ or with the production of pleasure.”2 This sounds a note of commonality with Jeremy Bentham, who posited a pain and pleasure calculus as being the means by which mankind determines its actions. Freud would later posit a ‘death principle’ by means to which to partially explain the horrors of the Great War.
In the difficulties of life men seek various ways of directing their energies, Freud uses the term ‘libido’ to refer to this, and not solely to sexual drives. Libido as the driving energy of life has much in common with Bergson’s élan vital or Nietzsche’s will to power. The source of suffering human life emerges from the clash between libido and the harsh reality that we cannot have all that we wish we could. So we seek to dull this pain. The most common, and for Freud the most crudest, of these methods is chemical intoxication. This serves merely to dull the frustration of the libido, but does not divert it or truly fulfill it in any way.
The second means of meeting life’s problems is ‘to master the internal sources of our needs.’ Freud gives the example of Yoga and other Eastern philosophies which seek to rid man’s life of suffering by deep control the innermost impulses of the soul. “Here the aim of satisfaction is not by any means relinquished; in that the non-satisfaction is not so painfully felt in the case of the instincts kept in dependence as in the case of uninhibited ones.”3 I say that, in this case at least, the innermost self is kept in check, though to a degree that few are capable of attaining.
The third method of amelioration is “shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world.”4 This sort of man will ‘seek satisfaction in internal, psychical processes.’ Those that find pleasure in the creation of beautiful things, composing music, of seeking answers to the questions of mathematics, science and philosophy are trying, in Freud’s mind, to avoid a direct confrontation with the ugliness of life’s dissatisfactions. This final attempt comes closest to ‘illusion’ of religion. Under this third amelioration the ‘discrepancy’ between reality and the illusions is not ‘allowed to interfere with enjoyment.’ From this point Freud goes on to briefly discuss religion, I will pass over this part in order to discuss religion later.
We use these methods, among others, to ameliorate the dissatisfactions which we all suffer in the course of our lives. But this does not wholly exhaust the frustrations which Freud sees in life. Human life is lived in society with others, by Freud’s time and our own, we have reached a state of civilization which is unparalleled in history. This imposes a grace psychic cost on mankind.
Freud calls civilization, “all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts.”5 This seemingly admirable thing has two aspects: the first is all the knowledge, abilities and capacities we have for controlling nature, keeping man in check and providing for our material needs. The second is “all the regulations necessary to adjust the relations of men to one another and especially the distribution of the available wealth.”6 This latter is the point of friction between men and civilization. Man, as Freud thought, consists in unsatisfied desires, material, psychical and sexual, these are part of civilization.
Freud knew that society is only possible through the mutual cooperation of large groups of individuals. This cooperation requires that men restrain, or be restrained, in their most aggressive instincts. And yet, “In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formation.”7 This overwhelming need to hold man in check, lest he destroy himself and his own greatest creations, is the source of civilization’s attempts to bound men in chains, material, religious, legal and social. Freud might have agreed with Burke who said, “men of intemperate spirits cannot be free, their passions forge their fetters.’ Where Burke saw freedom as being the fruit of civilized society, which could afford to trust men not to destroy themselves or it, Freud differed. For Freud, the loss of freedom was what made civilization possible.
We have reached what is, perhaps, Freud’s deepest insight into the nature of civilizations. Civilization was built upon the individual, who must renounce some part of what he wants to have, in order to reap the fruits of civilized life. Individuals often try to buck the restraints, “Thus civilization has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task.”8 Freud was under no illusions as to what sort of creature mankind is. He remarks, in the Future of an Illusion, that, “men are no spontaneously fond of work and that arguments are of no avail against their passions.”9
We posses “the inclicination to aggression” and it is this which, “constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.” As man progresses in blocking the aggression in himself, he loses what he originally was, “In fact, primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instinct…civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.”10 This is conducted through the suppression of man’s ego to the super-ego. The super-ego comes from the overwhelming power of civilization to inculcate into individuals the beliefs, values, morals and norms of the civilization. “Civilization, therefore, obtains master over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.”11 The initial suppressor is the authority of the religious illusion, the idea of a God, or of Fate, which ordains how things should be. Men are taught to feel guilt for violating these things. With the progression of society beyond such ideas though, the super-ego grows in strength as it seeks to root out of men the very idea of disobedience to civilized society’s dictates. “Every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases the latter’s severity and intolerance.”12
The demands of civilized life reach a degree which has resulted in the degradation of mankind. Freud’s lengthy remark on the power of the ‘cultural super-ego’ is worth quoting in full:
It…does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. It issues a command and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it. On the contrary, it assumes that a man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is required of it, and that his ego has unlimited mastery over his id. This is a mistake; and even in what are known as normal people the id cannot be controlled beyond certain limits. If more is demanded of a man, a revolt will be produced in him or a neurosis, or he will be made unhappy.13
It is civilization which is to blame for man’s unhappiness, for it asks too much of him. This is in many ways an accurate account of the nature of civilized society. But there are several problems. The first is Freud’s assumption of a naturalistic philosophy of man, by which man is not a creature of limited free will, but one where he is ever to be controlled by the experiences of his childhood. Freud’s view of man also relies upon his views of the psychology of mankind, which I find to be simplistic, in that it denies that man is not merely of three mental parts, but of a soul and spirit.
Freud’s solution for the tremendous demands of civilizations demands is to lower these demands. This is as close as Freud ever comes to overthrowing society. Admittedly, he is not revolutionary, no Marx or Nietzsche who wished to see the end of the society in which he lived. In truth Freud never tells us whether he believes that society is good or not. At the close of Civilization and Its Discontents he writes, “One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness – that, accordingly, they are an attempt to suppress his illusions with arguments.”14 Men’s arguments follow their wishes, there is no true way of knowing or of discovering what is truly worthwhile.
The culmination of Freud’s exploration, for all the insights he produced, is a spiritual void. Freud does not allow religion except as a mere palliative to the wounded ego of civilized man. Man does not posses a soul. Civilization is the mere product of man’s abilities, it signifies nothing higher in man than the desire for a better life today than what he lived yesterday. Freud’s position is very much like that of Nietzsche. Nietzsche held that truth is persepectival, that truth is based upon where one stands; there is no objective element of life. Freud seems to agree, since he accepts the illusions of society as being essential to continued life, whether they are true or not does not seem to matter.
When Nietzsche undid the basis of civilized life by undermining its idols, its morals and its religion, he saw more clearly than any other of his day, what it would cost. But he tried to escape the pit he exposed by his doctrine of the Ubermensch, the superman. Freud does not go so far as this. In some ways he lacked Nietzsche’s courage to fully expose society in accord with his own ideas. Freud reaches this but draws back from the edge and simply allows us to cling to our illusions, if we wish. This lack of a conclusion, whether good or bad, is frustrating. It would have been more intellectually honest for him to fully say that society is based upon complete falsehoods, which should be rejected because they are false. Or, he might have said that even though society is a false face, it is worth it because of what it brings us, making it, at best, a Noble Lie. Freud does neither of these, but exposes civilization as a monstrous imposture, but draws back before the final unveiling.
Yet the pits Freud opened for us have swallowed untold numbers of men and women, who have rejected the civilized restraint of their desires. His sin is what Macbeth laid claim to: “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other.”
1 Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, hereafter CD, pg. 22.
2 Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, hereafter BPP, from Sigmund Freud’s Classics, Acheron Press, e-book, loc. 16193
3 CD, pg. 26
4 Ibid, pg. 26
5 Freud, The Future of an Illusion, hereafter FI, pg. 6
6 Ibid, pg. 6
7 CD, pg. 59
8 FI, pg. 7
9 Ibid. pg 9
10 CD, pgs.69, 62.
11 Ibid, pgs. 70-71
12 Ibid, pg. 75
13 Ibid, pg. 90
14 Ibid, pg. 92